Bickering over Joe Paterno's legacy is ugly

Bickering over Joe Paterno's legacy is ugly

February 10, 2013, 3:00 pm
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The Paternos didn’t believe it. They don’t want you to believe it either. They want you to believe them – and, posthumously, him.

In July, after being commissioned by Penn State University to conduct an independent investigation, former FBI director Louis J. Freeh released his findings on the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The 267-page Freeh Report was a scathing criticism of the school that condemned its principal leaders – former university president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz, athletic director Tim Curley and Joe Paterno – for fostering a culture in State College that placed the welfare of the Nittany Lions football program ahead of the welfare of defenseless kids who were preyed upon by a serial sexual predator.

The Freeh Report prompted the NCAA to hand down serious sanctions against Penn State that included the reduction of scholarships, a $60 million fine and a four-year bowl ban. The school was also forced to vacate its wins dating back to 1998. In the wake of the controversy, the university removed a statue of Paterno that stood in the shadow of Beaver Stadium.

All of that served to tarnish Paterno’s legacy. His family immediately promised to commission its own report in an attempt to clear Paterno’s name and vindicate the long-time Nittany Lions head coach. On Sunday, the family released its findings.

Not surprisingly, the 238-page document – "Critique of The Freeh Report: The Rush to Injustice Regarding Joe Paterno” – seeks to discredit what it calls the “fundamentally flawed” Freeh investigation. According to former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh – who was hired by the Paterno family, along with former FBI profiler Jim Clemente, Washington attorney Wick Sollers, and Fred Berlin, director of The Johns Hopkins Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit – the Freeh Report reached "inaccurate and unfounded findings related to Mr. Paterno and its numerous process-oriented deficiencies was a rush to injustice.” Thornburgh also called into question “the [Freeh] investigation's credibility.”

In what it termed “major findings,” the Paterno family report denied that Paterno “participated in a conspiracy to cover up Sandusky’s actions because of fear or bad publicity” – one of the major charges levied by Freeh. On Sunday, Freeh released a statement that defended his initial report while calling the Paterno family’s investigation “self-serving.” Freeh also said “Mr. Paterno purposefully ignored” evidence and claimed “the most powerful people at Penn State failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.”

And around and around it goes. If your head is foggy from the never-ending argument over Paterno and his attendant legacy, you aren’t alone. It is a lot to process.

Sandusky is in jail. He will be there for at least 30 years for committing unthinkable and heinous crimes. Penn State has a new football coach, a man who is trying to help the university move forward. Those realities matter – though, tragically, the developments seem far less important to the Paternos and Freeh than winning the struggle over who is right and who is wrong about a deceased football coach.

They want you to choose. That’s what all of this is about now. It isn’t about the victims and helping them find some small measure of peace. It isn’t about making sure Sandusky is punished and locked away for the rest of his wretched life. It isn’t about helping Penn State grow and recover as a community. It is about picking sides.

Freeh has his version of events. You know it well: even after being alerted to unsettling activities, Spanier, Curley, Schultz and Paterno allowed Sandusky to remain around the football program – essentially enabling his twisted predilections because of fear about how the fallout might damage the vaunted football program.

The Paternos have their version of events. The family report said Paterno followed “university protocol” and that he “relied upon” his “superiors” to investigate Sandusky. The underlying takeaway is that Paterno was merely an employee, an elderly football coach who didn’t realize the severity of the circumstances.

The line was established long ago, but it has been reformed for emphasis. Freeh and his report are on one side. The Paternos are on the other clutching their rebuttal in defiant fists. For them or against them. They have essentially demanded that you make a decision.

When news broke about Sandusky, it was obvious that the scandal would have long-lasting ramifications. The story was too horrible and wide reaching to fade anytime soon. What was less apparent then was that the situation would devolve into the equivalent of ugly schoolyard finger-pointing and name-calling.

A bad man, an evil man, is in prison. He will hopefully die there, miserable and alone. And yet, while he rightfully rots, people bicker over a different man – over his legacy and his statue and his vacated victories, as if those things still matter. It was all so sad before, and it continues to be.

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